The Natural Emotional Cycle for Parents of Children With LD
When we think about grief and loss, the first things that come to mind are illness and death — very tangible, linear events that have a beginning, a middle, and an end which result in significant, emotional impact. But, what about the events in our lives that are not so black and white; the ones that continue to impact us throughout our lives and spur varying emotions over time?
Some would argue that when you have a child who struggles with learning, or who has been identified with a learning disability (LD) you, as a parent, grandparent or caregiver, will go through the identified stages of grief and loss many times over the course of your child’s journey. As you navigate life with a child who has learning challenges, these emotions can be triggered and expected at each stage or transition phase. It is important to recognize and address these feelings rather than push them down and ignore them. By understanding the grief cycle described below, you can begin to make sense of some emotions and reactions you may have experienced and know that they are bound to pop up at different points in time.
The most well-known model for the grief cycle was described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in response to death of a loved one. So why would we use that model in the context of learning disabilities? Once we know our children are doing things differently and we see them facing challenges that other children may not be going through, we can begin cycling through a range of emotions that mimic the grieving cycle. This may sound dramatic, but there is a loss that we experience each time we recognize that our child is different or having a difficult time in any given situation, especially once we suspect or accept that these challenges may be long-lasting.
Below is a list of the different stages of grief and loss; they are not linear and can be experienced out of order and at any point in time. See if any of these emotions ring true for you now or at any point during your journey with your child:
- Refusing to accept facts or information relating to the situation at-hand. How many of us, pre-diagnosis, have muddled through, convinced that there is nothing “wrong” with my child or heard messages such as “He will outgrow it and everything will be fine.”
- Emotional upset at ourselves or directed toward others. Has anyone ever said to themselves, “If I had just done something earlier” or lashed out at a teacher who clearly was not “getting” the situation with your child and inadvertently making it worse.
- Asking a higher power for help or trying to compromise a situation to “lessen the blow.” This typically results in a short-term solution to a long-term issue. Common thoughts might be: “If I just try harder to help him, this will all be better”; “If I hire a tutor, it will make everything better”; “If I negotiate with the teacher, he will change my child’s bad grade.”
- Feelings of loneliness, panic or guilt; feelings of devastation and sadness at each difficult juncture. You may feel like you’re the only parent or family going through this and that no one really understands what it is like. Why even talk to anyone about what you are going through when it is so hard and embarrassing? When you do try to talk to friends or family, they really just don’t seem to understand the situation or truly understand how painful it is to see your child struggle.
- Including growth, optimism and letting go of outdated stories or limiting beliefs of what is and is not possible. You come to a place where your child’s disability is accepted and his differences celebrated with the understanding that his (and your) journey is not a straight line, and that he can and will be successful in so many ways. You let go of comparing him to other kids and take a good, hard look at all the wonderful things he has to offer and his accomplishments that make him the special person that he is. You know that you are his best advocate and have the clearest insight into his abilities.
The good news is that, if you said yes to any of these feelings, you are not alone! Every parent managing a child’s special learning needs goes through these feelings. And, it is perfectly normal to experience some of these feelings at any point during the journey, particularly during major transition points such as changing grades, moving from one school to another, or transitioning to college or the workplace. Each time the environment shifts and external structures or ways of operating need to be renegotiated, these feelings will re-emerge as a reaction to high-stress situations because you know that these changes may not nurture your child right away. We know our children need more time than others to adjust to transitions and it can be more than a little stressful for parents to watch, waiting for them to flourish in new situations and environments. This is normal.